Last night, I was browsing through one of my favorite how-to books about poetry before going to sleep—The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. Kooser is a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a word-artist I revere, both as a writer and teacher of the art of poetry.
The chapter that caught my eye was “Writing about Feelings” and I can’t resist sharing some of his insights on this subject.
Kooser starts the chapter with a discussion about sentimentality which he defines as an excess of sentiment or the affectation of sentiment. To illustrate, he gives an example from the poem “Mother” by Edgar Guest:
Never a sigh for the cares that she bore for me
Never a thought of the joys that flew by;
Her one regret that she couldn’t do more for me,
Thoughtless and selfish, her Master was I.
Oh, the long nights that she came at my call to me!
Oh, the soft touch of her hands on my brow!
Oh, the long years that she gave up her all to me!
Oh, how I yearn for her gentleness now!
Slave to her baby! Yes, that was the way of her,
Counting her greatest of services small;
Words cannot tell what this old heart would say of her,
Mother–the sweetest and fairest of all.
1925, Public Domain
So, how do we express the sort of affection Guest is addressing in praise of his mother without plunging into the pool of effusiveness? Kooser’s suggestion is simple: avoid generalities and focus on specifics. Instead of using a slew of superlative adjectives or adverbs, Kooser advises that the poet illustrate an example of a mother’s love. Show her caring for her feverish child during the night or describe how she sacrificed herself for her child. For me, this brought to mind the beauty of O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” a clear example of selfless love.
Kooser invites the writer to “skate along the edge (of the precipice)” of sentimentality, asking poets to give the reader credit for coming up with the appropriate emotional response to a story on his or her own.
The use of metaphor or simile is one effective way to write feeling as well. For example, in a poem about his own mother’s last years entitled “In a Nursing Home,” Kooser creates an effective emotional response by comparing her to an old horse, grazing within the confines of a corral. A horse that has stopped running, whose boundaries are shrinking.
-Be specific, use description.
-Avoid generalizations and use of modifiers or superlatives.
-Strive for balance between expression and restraint.
-Look for similes and metaphors that will create the desired emotional response.
-Trust your reader to figure it all out.
I believe Kooser’s suggestions can apply to writers of prose as well as poetry. Think of the admonition we hear so often: “Show, don’t tell.”
When I was considering a topic for this post, several weeks ago, I happened upon a poem written by one of our very own dVerse poets, Karin Gustafson, who blogs as manicddaily. I’m grateful to Karin for allowing me to include it in today’s Meeting the Bar and hope that it will be a source of inspiration to you as you respond to today’s prompt.
We pushed from cold night into a Chinese restaurant,
the fluorescents reverberating like the din. One waitress
wiped the table, burnishing smears into reflection;
another balanced a rounded pot of tea and a fist’s stack
of cups (their sides glowing, incongruously,
with little seeds of translucence, grains of rice
made glass), the pot so full
that tea brimmed to the edge of its
spout with every shift from level, hip
or wrist, a
glimmering lithe tongue.
A man in my group had, some time before,
lost his adult child. It had been sudden, she
had been young.
It was hard for me to look at him,
each expression–his patience
with the waitresses, concern about the chairs, even his
cold-reddened skin—a riddled mask
over the shear of loss that had left
the merest sense of face, worn
like the extremity
of an icon, the bronze saint whose foot has been rubbed
to a bare grip, slip
of soap, by petitioners who have
prayed to be washed clean, not of sin, but suffering.
The teapot begged to be poured; the waitress ran its
gulping stream over the beaded cups, steam rising into
air that ached to be warmed, the door, the night, opening
always at our side.
I could almost not look
at the man, as if his pain
might brim over,
scald me too, and yet another part of me,
what I like to think of as a part
that catches light like the curve of
a cup, or perhaps a part that is
dark, swirling, like the grain in the veneer
of even a plastic tabletop, that part that
somehow recalls a tree (or at least, the idea
of a tree), shifted my chair closer, wanting
to drink with him that
fresh, hot tea,
anything that could pass for succor.
For today’s prompt, I invite you to dip your pen into the ink of emotion, any emotion, and write details that will convey an intense feeling without sentimental gushing.
o Pen your poem
o Post it on your blog
o Click the Mr. Linky button below and, in the new window that opens up, input your name and the direct URL of the poem.
o Visit others who have taken the challenge.
As you recall, the initial purpose of Meeting the Bar was to offer a venue for constructive peer critique. I invite you take advantage of this opportunity to give feedback to the poets who linked before and after your link—more if you are able. In order to do this in an effective manner, take a moment to revisit the advice given by Luke Prater in one of the first Meeting the Bar articles: https://dversepoets.com/2011/07/21/meeting-the-bar-crit-friday/
I am Victoria, ever grateful to be a part of this creative group of poets who are open to sharing their talents and comments.